Roadshow Revelations – Part One,

During a baking hot July day last year (seems an age ago now) I donned my ‘bronze’ (officially that is the colour but the best description I have heard from equally unimpressed volunteers is ‘cat sick’) English Heritage volunteer polo shirt, itself not that unusual event, but not normally early morning and in the middle of the week. The reason for me taking the day off and going up to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire to spend my day trying to avoid sun stroke was to be one of 40 odd other volunteers assisting with the visit of the BBCs ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to the site to record two programmes for the 2019 series. It was a while ago, but as they have now started to show this series it seemed a good point to share a few things about the experience.

First, it is a slick operation. They have four roving teams of cameras and support crew and they are all linked by the producer – no one argues with her, and if anything needs fixing, she’s the one to call. The BBC team and the experts work incredibly hard. The doors open at around nine thirty in the morning, and officially the day ends at 5pm, but the reality is that they are still going at 7pm – largely due to the BBC promise that anyone who turns up with something to be valued before 5 will be seen before they all pack up. This means that the experts are having to look at items all day with perhaps a thirty-minute break to scoff some BBC lasagne and any points where they must film the parts that will be in the actual programme.

If you have ever wondered how and why some items have been brought for valuation – including the ones that seem very fragile or heavy – the explanation is that the owners have been asked to bring them especially. The issue for the BBC is this; they cannot have the film crews just twiddling their thumbs until something interesting turns up, so for the first few hours of the day they will film with people who have been ‘vetted’ in advance of the main day, who the production team have become aware of through various channels including social media. The experts have been out to see what they have and if it fits what the programme is looking for then they are invited to attend at the start of the day to keep the team busy while they hope that the crowds lining up with their bags and boxes are bringing something to surprise and make up the bulk of the programme. Now, next time you watch, try and guess what was arranged and what really did just turn up on the day!

So how does it work normally? When you arrive whatever you bring is briefly assessed by a couple of general experts and you are assigned to the most relevant specific expert area (or areas, depending on what you have brought with you). You then go and join the queue. And wait. And wait.

When eventually the expert can see your item, 99% of the time they will just give you an assessment, and that will be that. But in a few cases, they will identify the item as something of interest, and (sweetly) they write the details on a piece of paper that then goes into a cardboard box at the control point. The bits of paper are reviewed by the production team regularly and after a little more digging will either release the person who brought the item (who have been effectively in a holding pen) as the item does not fit the programme needs, or agree to film, in which case the person who brought the item is sent off to wait and have make up applied and eventually will be called back to film with the expert – this can take several hours. So, you might argue that while it might be nice to find a lost Van Dyck in the loft it is going to take up the rest of your day. This is why there are four filming teams – in the day they need more than enough material to fill two-hour long programmes, which can be a challenge.

And if there is any doubt about the honesty of someone’s surprise regarding value, that is straight enough – when the expert identifies that the item is of interest they will explain why in very general terms and explicitly not mention value – so to find that Aunty Nora’s china dogs are actually worth thousands is usually genuine.

Next week – how to survive the queues and what do they look for. But I leave you this week with the amusing fact that the Antiques Roadshow office at the BBC is next to the one occupied by ‘Countryfile, and apparently there is a fierce rivalry between the two teams on ratings, which conjures in my mind all sorts of shenanigans where Fiona Bruce tries to sabotage Adam Henson’s tractor. Or maybe it is just me.


A Life Well Lived

Well, I’m back. For the moment at least.

As anyone who knows me well, 2018 was a strange year. Many people might find it strange that I do not use words like terrible or sad, as it was the year that I lost my father. But while I do feel a deep sadness – and having just gone through my first Christmas without a parent and with his birthday approaching at the end of the week I feel it particularly at the moment – but there was a lot more to 2018 than the blunt fact that my Dad is not with us anymore.

For a start, it was a year I got to spend more time with Dad than I had in the last 10 years and for the first few months that was pretty good quality time, filled with a lot of laughs and love. We were blessed time and time again; finding him a nursing home within walking distance of where I grew up, right in the heart of the community he and mum had lived in for over 40 years; cared for by people who understood him and cared enough that when he passed away they were genuinely upset. He had a room that suited him, a TV to watch endless episodes of the various versions of NCIS (and believe me, I’ve now seen a lot of those from sitting in with him) and enjoying the childlike delight in consuming far too many sweets then would be good for you – if it mattered, which now it didn’t. Although, typically Dad decided that the only sweets he really wanted were the fruit flavoured travel sweets you get in the small round tins, which for a while I could only find in service stations. Considering how cheeky my Dad could be when he wanted to be, that almost feels deliberate.

As a last few months go, I think I have to admit they went as well as they could. He was comfortable, he knew the garden and house was being well looked after – the Lovely wife and I took time to do that and take in the photographs to prove it, much to his delight. His beloved Newcastle managed to avoid relegation from the Premier League. He picked the winner of the Grand National – for the first time I recall in his life – and spent some of the winnings on chocolates for the Home staff. He liked ‘Dunkirk’ but was less impressed with ‘La La Land’, because that movie’s bittersweet tendencies did not fit with the fact that Dad was a sweet romantic at heart. We regaled him with the adventure that was saving Sméagol the Beagle from the busy road outside the Home after one summer visit to the Home – as a dog lover that one kept him rapt. The routine of walking down to see him, buying the Evening Chronicle on the way, which he hardly ever read, past the last page anyway, was a sustaining one, as was the support we received from two local churches and the staff at the Newfield Inn, where the odd pint of Double Maxim and some ‘porkies’ where a regular reward. The Lovely Wife and I walked all over the North East, letting her see where I came from and giving us plenty to talk about with Dad afterwards.

And when the end came, it came quickly and painlessly. It was on June 21st, a bright sunny day and if you want to pick a day to go, a pretty good choice.  We spent the latter part of that day letting the magic of ducks help with the grief at the WWT site at Washington; a place that has always being precious to me and now has a sad but equally supportive resonance.

So, 2018 was a strange year. But I prefer to focus on the many blessings we received and a gentle ending to an earthly life of someone who had always been devoted to my Mum and I and I think was at peace when the end came.

In the Presence of an Emperor

One of the most entertaining moments I have had recently was down to an insect. Not just any insect, though, something large and colourful – and to its prey, deadly, too. On a warm September afternoon, the Lovely Wife and I stood watching as it hunted, quartering the territory around us as you see large birds of prey do – looking for the moment to grab its prey out of the air and consume it immediately on the wing. It totally ignored us, of course, bar ensuring that it did not actually fly into either of us.

The hunter in question was an Emperor Dragonfly, about 7 cm long, clad beautifully in blue and green, all of which was picked out in the bright sun. Anax Imperator (I admit to looking that up) is a truly impressive sight. It was mostly blue, apparently that makes it likely to have been the male (yes, looked that up too).

The Lovely Wife and I were at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, not far from Ely. The nature reserve, run by the National Trust, includes one of the only fragments of authentic Fen land among a man-made landscape of rich arable farming, droves and waterways. Apparently, it is well known for its dragonflies, and certainly this reputation seemed well earned as we walked along, quickly losing count of the species that seemed to be active. I have always had a soft spot for dragonflies, there is something wonderfully archaic – and for good reasons, similar animals ruled the skies long before the dinosaurs – and yet they are such wonderful aerial acrobats. They are, as you might say, a design classic (and before my biologist friends protest I just mean that, like the original Mini there are cases where something just comes together and perpetuates because, frankly, it’s pretty hard to improve on). They are also terrifying predators, tiny aerial sharks and wo betide any smaller beastie that cannot get out of the way fast enough. They are equally terrifying – if considerably less attractive – in their larval stage. A couple of years I was pond dipping in the garden and fished up a dragonfly nymph – frankly the thing made me nervous, and to them I am this incomprehensible behemoth.

Watching the Emperor trying to catch some of its smaller brethren, I did wonder about the whole concept of scale. It is something I think about every time I, or someone I am with, has their quiet drink in the pub disrupted by a wasp; or the abject terror that some people have of the tiniest spider. To these creatures, even instinctively, we must be too big to compute. To the dragonflies we might as well have been trees, indeed the Lovely Wife joked that since we were standing stock still watching the show, there was every chance that one of the many dragonflies hovering around us might decide were provided a convenient perch (as it happens, we were spared that, this time). But that wasp in the pub is not out to get us – we are just this huge living thing getting in the way, and most of the time they would just ignore us; the real problem is that much of the time we cannot ignore them.

That same day we watched a wasp attempting to prey on honeybees that were intent on their normal work on a flowering bush. Every time the wasp pounced on one of the bees, the intending victim simply dropped to the ground like a stone, effectively getting it away from its attacker. We watched the wasp try again and again, and each time to bees responded in the same way, and then flew back up into the bush to continue their business. Small things can be fascinating, and wasp v bee was another special insect moment.

But it was not a patch on our encounter with the Emperor.

The Problems of Being a Hoarder

I am a hoarder by nature. Beyond the obviously ephemeral, I have considerable trauma in getting rid of anything that has featured in my life, whether that be books, souvenirs, theatre programmes or a particular bugbear of mine, guidebooks to places I have visited. They just keep building up and gradually take over wherever I live to the point where it starts to become a nuisance.

I kind of grew into this; my parents were both hoarders too, so the recent efforts to clear my childhood home have been around clearing a lot of what can only be described as ‘stuff’. Some of this ‘stuff’ is useful and beyond the things that we wanted to keep – might come to that at some later point – anything we can find a home for we are keen to do – and so far we are doing pretty well via charity of specific rehoming, and that has made the whole process a lot easier than it might have been. But then there is the ‘stuff’ that no one would really want – the broken ornaments, the ‘rest your ash here’ ashtray in the shape of a toilet (and its ilk) – which I have no real idea what to do with. In the end, the very nice house clearance people that we used to clear the garden and garage waste (as an aside for those of you in the North I can heartily recommend Mawsons, based in the Team Valley, they were very good) will have to deal with what’s left – I cannot bring myself to put these kind of things in the bin, because, well, my Dad kept them for some reason. Possibly he did not notice them anymore, in the same way that you become acclimatised to a pervading smell. I don’t know. Maybe the house clearance folks will take a shine to something – they adopted the five-foot stuffed crocodile from a previous job after all – and that is a minor consolation.

What this process has brought home to me is my own situation. The Lovely Wife and I have no children. I am not sure of either of us want to leave a nightmare of a job to the executers of our will when we are no longer here. And, as things stand, that would be the case – and, with all hope, we have decades to add to the problem.

The alternative is to try and start making things simpler now.

People are reluctant to talk about the end of life and often avoid talking about it, but it is inevitable, and we do our friends and families and injustice by not doing at least the minimum of preparation. As an adult you should have a will, no matter how young you are, if only to make your wishes clear on what should happen in the case of your passing. It is very comforting to know that you are executing the wishes of the deceased, and that there is legal certainty around that. We have a will and, for various reasons, need to revise it, but I also need to start organising my ‘stuff’ so that when the time comes it is easier to deal with. It does not necessarily mean gifting things to others or indeed disposing of things although that will come into it, nor does it mean I intend quitting this earth anytime soon – I’m also looking forward to a less cluttered existence and when I think about ‘health’ as I look towards fifty, there is more to it than the obvious physical state to think about if the next phase of life is going to be an enjoyable and sustainable one.

House Proud

My parent’s house has never looked so good. The garden paving has been cleared of weeds by the Lovely Wife in a systematic campaign carried out over a sunny North East day in a successful way that attempts to keep them at bay using chemicals never really achieved showing that getting on your knees with a sharp knife and a strong attention to detail is not really beatable (and probably better for the environment). The Sea Holly, a massive thistle like thing I very nearly pulled out as a weed is magnificent in a shade of prickly purple and covered in bees; most of what I have planted over the year has survived the heat and is looking healthy enough.

Inside the house the clutter of a lifetime has mostly gone. The removals people have been, efficiently removing the furniture we want to keep to a mysterious location (OK, a temperature-controlled facility in Longbenton, but I do like to think of it as the massive warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the Ark of the Covenant finds its resting place). The ornaments we like are packed up and stored elsewhere; the rubbish has been cleared by David and his teenager Josh, working for a lovely local business we will be using when the final moments come. The Lovely Wife has cleaned everything and now the house has minimal furniture and ornaments tastefully arranged in that way that reminds you of those adverts which show houses that cannot possible be being lived in on a regular basis, but have just the right amount of fittings that allow for the fact that many people have no imagination and need to be informed that ‘this is the bedroom’ or ‘you can put you family pictures here’.

People have asked me how it is going, how I am managing getting my childhood home, and the happy marriage home for my parents ready for sale. It is not an easy question to answer. In practical terms, it has gone very well. We have been organized, we have had some great help from a practically skilled good friend fixing minor but glaring problems which has been invaluable (thank you, you know who you are). There has been a certain pleasure in getting everything as beautiful as we can, as a tribute to Dad and Mum… And of course, it has been deeply upsetting for both of us. In fact, now that we have more or less finished anything we can do – now it is up to the Estate Agent to a certain extent – we look around and have very mixed feelings about selling. For a brief moment, a few weeks, this is our ‘other’ house and we will miss it and all the memories that it holds, even in its current slightly unreal state. This year we have effectively lived in two houses at opposite ends of the A1(M) and in many respects have been more part of the community in Pelton than in St Albans – whether that be enjoying moments of relaxation and ridiculously cheap (but rather nice) beer at the Newfield Inn around the corner, or being reminded what it is like to be almost the youngest people in a church community of about 35 rather than one that number 100s. We’ll even miss the COOP in the village and its surprisingly good Brie. In my mind I think we have had our chance to live in a different place and while I am looking forward to getting back to something like normal I do think 2018 will have left some fundamental changes – I will not say scars – in how I at least see things.

The house will not be ours soon, but I think it will leave something of a permanent legacy for us, practically and otherwise.

W is for Watership Down

I’m about twelve and in an English lesson at school. My favourite lesson in fact, one where we just sat for the entire hour reading whatever book we were reading at the time. I loved reading at the time and still do, although I have to admit that my reading was mostly quite one track, namely endless Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories, to the continuing despair of my English teacher. ‘At least you are reading something’ was the best he could offer in my defence. But this week was different. In my hands was a hardback book from the Local Library. It had a cover that was not the most exciting thing in the world; it was just a photograph of some rabbits sitting in a sun kissed field (actually highly inappropriate in many ways for this book). The book was by Richard Adams and was of course ‘Watership Down’.

Now this was not the first time I had read this book – it was maybe the tenth or eleventh time since I had picked it up for the first time at the age of about eight. I have no idea why I came to read it – it was not one of the books my parents knew anything about – maybe I heard about from someone at school. I don’t know. All I did know is that I fell in love with it straight away and it is still my favourite book (if you pushed me – ‘Good Omens’ by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is close behind and as an aside I cannot wait for the BBC TV adaptation, albeit with a tiny amount of trepidation – but only tiny as Gaiman is so involved in it, surely they cannot screw it up?). Nevertheless, my English teacher was delighted that I was now reading a ‘proper’ book. He was less enamoured when I decided to reread it a few further times that year, but in the final reckoning, I refer you to the ’at least he’s reading’ sentiment once more.

Of the thousands of books that I have read, why should this book still have such a resonance with me? Good question. Partly it is the time I first experienced a fully nuanced novel that even as a child I could see worked on different levels (for some of the people I know this might be books by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis or Mervyn Peake). I was always someone I would describe as a naturalist at heart so anything about animals is going to be well received at least at the outset, but this was probably an entry point and nothing more. Looking back today though, I think it gave me the kind of story I like the most, an interesting ensemble cast of characters that, in this case, just happen to be rabbits. As a child, my favourite character was Blackberry – the bright one, basically – but I found them all well drawn and ‘real’. Add on top of that a simple but well thought out rabbit culture, language and mythology (danger: Allegory alert) and I was sold.

But it is Hazel that is the centre of the book. If you want an example of what the ideal leader looks like it is arguably the central character. On the surface he appears only average, but in reality, he is the reason for anything good that happens; he listens to others, he learns what everyone’s skills are and then uses them; he doesn’t look down on anyone, even a humble mouse (and I will not spoil the story to say how crucial that attitude turns out to be). And, when it needs to be, he is heroic and prepared to die for his people (particularly when he confronts the main antagonist near the end). If I had to aspire to be a character in a book – this is who I would want to be.

Please read this book if you never have; do not be biased by the 1980s animated version, which has it charms but is fatally flawed in my opinion – mostly because you lose the complexity of the characters. Some of you will fall in love, I’m sure.

V is for Very Lucky

It was something of a respite for us at the weekend to have a long weekend in Hampshire on our own, in lush, gorgeous arable countryside with perhaps more than our fair share of sun. It was beautiful walking weather – bright, sunny but not too hot – and the area we were in, sandwiched between Ringwood and Salisbury, was full of interest, historical and natural. As I have commented before, when we walk the Lovely Wife and I also do quite a lot of talk and as this increasingly weird and complicated year continues to surprise there is always plenty to talk about, even when not discussing the sights we see along the way.

One ritual is the review of the day, for both where we went, what we saw and what surprised and delighted. Sunday was a particular pleasure, kicked off with a Roman villa and graduating via two Saxon churches, a hill fort and a medieval turf labyrinth which more than satisfied my history needs. But as is often the case it is the smaller, often wildlife moments that stick in the mind. The huge Devil’s Coachman Beetle on the path as we climbed out of Rockbourne, or the slow worm sunning itself on the footbath up to that village’s church. Or perhaps the two Brown Hares having a face off in one of the fields we passed later in the day, largely oblivious to us in the midst of whatever dispute they were mutually engaged with.

We needed the respite. I go back up to see my father again later this week, he continues to hang on in there although is becoming increasingly tired. I have been very blessed though with having the opportunity to spend so much time with him these last six months and we have had plenty of time to talk and say what we need to say to each other, something many people do not have the luxury of. My main worry for him now is to stop him getting bored, although cheeky exchanges with some of the Nursing Home staff (some of whom are very colourful in their own right), a supply of sweets and endless editions of NCIS and its various spinoffs on the TV seem to be keeping him pretty happy – if a little confused, as watching through the day across different channels does mean that there is no continuity of characters. But, hey, it’s just fairly entertaining hokum and taken in that sense it does not make a vast amount of difference if you are seeing it in the right order or not.

No one knows how long this will last and I have now learned not to really think about it too much. I cannot affect what will happen, so we will concentrate on what we can effect, being there for him as much as we can considering the other plates we need to spin for us and for friends and family. The support from everyone has been wonderful; and I have to also say that my work – I work for Procter & Gamble – have been hugely supportive, and I am constantly aware that with a less flexible and understanding employer this whole period would be much less tolerable. So we soldier on, and take each week as it comes.